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The Ulster Tower

The Ulster Tower, Thiepval
The Ulster Tower, Thiepval

The Ulster Tower is a memorial to the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division. It is located very near to the famous Schwaben Redoubt (Feste Schwaben) which the Division attacked on July 1st, 1916. The Scwaben Redoubt was a little to the north-east of where the tower stands, and was a triangle of trenches with a frontage of 300 yards, a fearsome German strongpoint with commanding views.

The front lines were at the edge of Thiepval Wood which lies to the south-west of the road between the Thiepval memorial and the Ulster Tower. Troops of the 109th Brigade crossed about 400 yards of No Man's Land, and kept on going. They entered the Schwaben Redoubt, and advanced on towards Stuff Redoubt, gaining in all around a mile, though not without losses. To their left, the 108th Brigade were succesful in advancing near Thiepval, but less so nearer the River Ancre.

The 107th Brigade supported them, but although the men of the 36th Division held out for the day the Germans mounted counterattacks, and as their stocks of bombs and ammunition dwindled many fell back, with small parties remaining in the German front lines. The casualties suffered by the 36th Division on the 1st of July were over 5,000 in total - almost half of their strength.

The tower is a copy of Helen's Tower in County Down, where men of the 36th Division trained. The tower (plus a small cafe nearby) is staffed by members of the Somme Association which is based in Belfast, and is a friendly and welcoming place to stop on a battlefield tour.

The Ulster Tower in perhaps the 1920s
The Ulster Tower in perhaps the 1920s

At the entrance to the site, on the right hand side is a flagpole flying the Union Jack, whilst on the left is a memorial plaque to the nine Victoria Cross winners of the 36th (Ulster) Division during the Great War. This plaque was unveiled in 1951. Of the men commemorated, four won the VC for actions on the 1st of July 1916; Captain Eric Bell (killed 1st July), Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather (VC awarded for actions on the 1st and 2nd of July, killed 2nd July), Private Billy MacFadzean (killed 1st July - see section on the trenches below) and Private Robert Quigg. Robert Quigg survived the War, but was nearly killed ten years after the Battle of the Somme, when in 1926 he fell from a window of the Soldiers Home in Belfast, only narrowly missing being impaled on railings beneath. He eventually died in 1955.

The plaque commemorating VC winners at the Ulster Tower, Thiepval
The plaque commemorating VC winners at the Ulster Tower

The tower, which is 70 feet high, was unveiled by Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on the 19th of November, 1921, at a ceremony also attended by French dignitaries. The tower was dedicated by the Primate of All Ireland, the Moderator of the Irish Presbyterian church and the President of the Methodist Chiurch in Ireland. At the time it was described as the most imposing monument on the Western Front; it was certainly one of the earliest. Note that the plaque inside commemorating the opening (shown below) names Lord Carson, who was initially scheduled to open the memorial. Due to ill-health, however, he could not travel to France for the ceremony. Trees from Ulster were planted here by survivors from the 36th Division.

The plaque commemorating the opening of the Ulster Tower, Thiepval
The plaque commemorating the opening of the Ulster Tower

When the Tower was opened in 1921, the ground around Thiepval still remained practically untouched since the War. In fact, in The Times article announcing the opening there is a picture taken of the tower from a trench in the Schwaben Redoubt, clearly showing the still disturbed state of the ground here. Shortly after the tower was unveiled, the Prefect of the Somme announced that the land here would be left intact 'for eternity', complete with German trenches, barbed wire and battle debris. Obviously, this did not in fact occur, although the Thiepval Memorial was constructed very near here, and now restored trenches can be visited in nearby Thiepval Wood.

There are various war-related items to be seen around the grounds, including shells and a section of light railway as shown below.

Section of light railway at the Ulster Tower
Section of light railway at the Ulster Tower

To the right of and behind the tower is the Orange Memorial. A small gate in a block built wall leads to it. Inside is a bench commemorating six men who won the Victoria Cross in both World Wars. The memorial itself, which was dedicated in September 1993, is a black stone obelisk with the insignia of the Orange Order on it, and the word 'Boyne' at the base. Between is an inscription commemorating those of 'the Orange Institution worldwide' who fought and who 'finally passed out of the sight of man'.

The Orange Order Memorial
The Orange Order Memorial

Inside the Tower are some interesting items, including the memorial stone shown below. This was erected to remember Second Lieutenant Matthew John Wright, a clergyman's son from Newtownards, who was killed on the 1st of July. It is not clear exactly where the stone used to stand or who erected it, although there is a photograph of it in situ displayed above it.

A headstone to Lt Wright of the Royal Irish Rifles, within the Ulster Tower
A headstone to Lt Wright of the Royal Irish Rifles, within the Ulster Tower

Matthew Wright enlisted as a Private in the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, having joined at Belfast on the 6th of October 1914. He applied for a commission only a few weeks after enlisting and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in January 1915. When he enlisted in 1914 he was 26 years and 7 months old. His enlistment papers, in his file at the National Archives, also records that he was 5' 6 3/4" tall, weighed 168 lbs and had blue eyes and brown hair. His occupation before joining up was a cashier, and he lived at home with his father, Revered William Wright of Springfield Manse, Newtownards. He had been on leave shortly before he was killed, and this leave had been extended as he had reported with a fractured rib to a doctor on the 12th of May and was discharged on the 26th of May. This prompted the Director of Personnel Services to complain that the Medical Officer could reccomend but was not "empowered to grant" sick leave. In any event, Matthew Wright reported back to his battalion on the 27th of May 1916 (10 days later than originally scheduled), and was to die just over a month later. The telegram announcing his death was sent to his father on the 5th of July 1916.

After his death, the only personal items reported by the Standing Committee of Adjustment were two cheque books and one Officers Advance book. The Field Service form reporting his death states that he was killed in action, and that his place of burial was "not forthcoming" - only too often this was the case. He is still one of the many with no known grave and his name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial nearby.

A plaque on the outside of the tower commemorates the rededication of the Tower, and was unveiled by HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester on Saturday, the 1st of July, 1989. Just a few yards away from the entrance to the Ulster Tower, down a small track leading downhill from the road, the remains of a German machine gun post can be seen. This may well have been used during the Battle of the Somme; it would have been just about on the German front-line where it crossed the track. In fact, a strong-point in the German lines is marked just about here on trench maps, and was known as the 'Pope's Nose'. The track was also marked on trench-maps of the time, and leads downhill into St Pierre-Divion.

German Machine Gun Post near Ulster Tower
Machine Gun Post near the Ulster Tower

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Connaught Cemetery

Leaving the Ulster Tower and turning left leads you to the nearby Connaught Cemetery. This has two entrances and and a low hedge along the front, with brickbuilt walls along the sides and back. The Cross of Sacrifice at the back is set above the cemetery, and behind it is an immaculate hedge. This cemetery was started in the autumn of 1916, originally comprising 228 graves, but was increased after the Armistice. It now contains 1,268 burials, around half of which are unidentified.

Connaught Cemetery
Connaught Cemetery

The cemetery has an attractive layout, with two grass walkways leading from the two entrances and conifers flanking the rows of graves. At the back right are special memorials to five soldiers killed in 1916 and buried in Divion Rd Cemetery No. 2, whose graves were destroyed in later battles. There are special memorials at the back left to men who are believed to be buried here in Connaught Cemetery.

Connaught Cemetery
Connaught Cemetery

In March 1926, an explosion was reported to have partially destroyed Connaught Cemetery. In fact an explosion had occurred very near to the cemetery, at a dump of shells which was located about 20 yards away. Although some headstones were damaged, the graves themselves were not.

Behind Connaught Cemetery is Thiepval Wood, from which men of the 36th Division attacked on the 1st of July, 1916. The Somme Association now own 58 acres of the Wood. The Wood is private; however in conjunction with the 'Friends of Nomansland', the Somme Association have been excavating a section of the frontline trench just behind the cemetery. Some finds include a Sherwood Foresters epaulette, and a SMLE rifle (which can now seen on display in the left-hand glass case in the Ulster Tower museum, just off from the cafe). Although excavations will continue, sections of the trenches have now been made permanent and can be visited, although only when accompanied by a guide from the Ulster Tower (usually Teddy Colligan). Unfortunately, due partly to insurance costs, the site is not open for unaccompanied visitors, however parties are taken round the site on a fairly regular basis.


Trenches in Thiepval Wood

Trenches in Thiepval Wood: guided tours only

These trenches have been excavated over a number of years and work continues (with further excavations ongoing in late 2006). A small ceremony was held in these trenches on the 1st of July 2006, and a tour around them is fascinating. A contemporary map near the entrance shows some of the trenches which are visited in the wood. This map (made by the 16th RIR Pioneer Battalion of the 36th Ulster Division) shows the wood as it was in June 1916, and the circles near the front line were gas cylinders, in four sets of four, ready for use in the attack on the 1st of July.

Map showing trenches in the wood
Map showing trenches in the wood

The entrance to the trenches is just to the left of Connaught Cemetery. Whilst the Somme Association own the wood, they have agreed access rights on certain days for a local shooting club, so there is no access on Sundays in November. They have also agreed that lumber can be cut within the wood by a contractor. The Somme Association have already spent around 25,000 in laying paths, constructing fences around the excavated trenches and on associated work. Some of the money has been spent on a series of useful information boards, which include contemporary wartime pictures to help illustrate how the trenches would have looked during wartime.

One of the information boards
One of the information boards

The front line trench here on the 1st of July was named Whitchurch Street, and a section of this is now excavated and preserved, including a firestep. There is currently no parapet, although there are tentative plans to address this.

An excavated section of the frontline trench 'Whitchurch Street'
An excavated section of the frontline trench 'Whitchurch Street'

One of the communication trenches which ran up to the front line has also been excavated, with a small portion of this trench, 'George Street', made permanent. However one can see the shallow outline of the trench running from the excavated portion. Remnants and relics from the war are still being found throughout the wood, with food tins and other artefacts coming to light.

An excavated section of a communication trench 'George Street'
An excavated section of a communication trench 'George Street'

A bunker which was probably originally made by the French when they held these lines has also been excavated. There are shellholes to be seen in the wood, and one particularly large crater near the dugout. Red stone chip paths run around the open portion of the site, and further into the wood hunting lodges can be seen. In another section of excavated trench, the entrance to a dugout has been uncovered.

An excavated section of trenchAn excavated section of trench
An excavated section of a communication trench with the entrance to a dugout visible

The site where 20 year old Billy McFadzean won the Victoria Cross, for throwing himself on some grenades just before they exploded is nearby, and there are several memorial crosses. This story is told in Martin Middlebrooks The First Day on the Somme, but briefly, from his citation, 'a box of bombs being opened for distribution prior to an attack slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Private McFadzean, instantly realizing the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the bombs, which exploded, blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew the danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment's hesitation he gave his life for his comrades'. Some of the crosses placed here are very recent, commemorating the 90th anniversary in 2006. There is also a plaque to the 36th Division on a tree nearby.

Memorials in the wood
Memorials in the wood, near where Billy McFadzean won the VC

From this spot when I visited, we walked back up by 'George Street' towards the front line. It was an experience that is hard to put into words to think we were retracing the steps of those who 90 years ago moved up to the front-line to take part in the 1st of July attack here that promised so much, but ultimately gained so little.

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Sources & Acknowledgements
Teddy Colligan for the tour around the trenches
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme - the day by day account
Martin Middlebrook: The First Day on the Somme
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme
Times online archives